"Giving Birth To An Idea"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 9, 2004
Revelation 21: 1-6; John 13:31-35
Think of the impact, for example,
if someone discovered a new technology that would free America from
its reliance on petroleum based products. Think of all the
industries that would have to change or go out of existence.
In our Gospel lesson today, we learn that Jesus was giving his disciples a new commandment.
This is what he said, "And now I
give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you,
so you must love one another. If you have love for one another,
then everyone will know that you are my disciples."
Why would Jesus refer to such a
common sense idea as "new"? Had no one in his world experienced the
sharing of love in their communities? After all, the spirit of most
Americans has been based on a broad understanding of this teaching
whether this it been recognized or not.
In a much earlier time, our family
drove across the United States five times during our extended
vacations. We found the same sense of community everywhere. It did
not matter which state borders we crossed, what shopping malls we
entered, or in which National or State Park we camped. The people
there were living the same values found elsewhere in our culture.
The concept of loving each other is
so gentle to our ears. Love is described in our music and poetry.
In our spirits, we know that those who have perfected this energy
have mastered the art of living. Yet as a practice, loving behavior
is still experiencing the pains associated with the birth of a new
idea. Few of us are capable of hanging from our respective
crosses while loving those who put us there. Why is this so?
When we love, we have requirements,
attachments and expectations. The idea that love is a one way
street is still foreign to us. It leaves us with a sense that there
is no justice with the seemingly passive behavior of
unconditional love. It is very challenging to give ourselves away
and not expect anything in return. Perhaps this is why Jesus called
his commandment "new." It still is new for many of us.
It appears that loving one
another will always remain an individual choice. Love is not a
behavior or attitude that can be forced on anyone nor can an entire
society become committed to it. Our differing values and attitudes
will not permit this to happen in our current state of evolution.
For the sake of discussion, however, what would happen if loving
each other became mandatory?
Perhaps the story of Anna Jarvis
may give us an answer. Anna moved to Grafton, West Virginia from
Philadelphia where she affiliated with a Methodist church. When her
mother grew ill, she returned to Philadelphia to take care of her.
Her mother died in 1905 and Anna grieved a long time. She brooded
for years and almost became bitter over her observation that many
grown children were neglecting their mothers.
Anna committed the rest of her life
to doing something about her perception. She conceived of Mother's
Day. She thought, "If children were too busy with their lives to
express love to their mothers, at least one day they could do so."
On May 10, 1908, Mother's Day began in two churches -- one in
Grafton and the other in Philadelphia. The only problem was that
these services were dedicated to the honor and memory of only Anna's
After sensing this success, she
singlehandedly wrote members of Congress, influential businessmen,
governors and newspaper editors. Slowly she got results. In 1910
three states declared Mother's Day a holiday. The year after that
other states followed. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared
Mother's Day a national holiday and designated its celebration for
the second Sunday of May. He declared that citizens should set
aside this day for the public expression of love and reverence for
This is how Mother's Day began 90
years ago. In a sense, expressing love to our Mothers became a
national preoccupation on this one day. Has it worked? As a
national policy we have set this day aside, but as a culture do we
truly treasure motherhood?
Just as with the Sabbath Day, a new form was created. Not everyone worships. Not everyone sets the Sabbath aside as a day of rest and reflection. In fact, for many people Sunday is no different from any other day. Perhaps this is the reason why stress has become the new silent killer. The created forms of Christmas and Easter are met with the same result. Many give token acceptance to these holidays by attending their places of worship only twice a year.
From very humble beginnings
Mother's Day has grown to a 13 billion dollar industry. Hallmark
estimates that 175 million cards will be bought for this single
day. The flower industry receives a tremendous infusion of fresh
dollars for Mother's Day. Yet where is society with respect to
Motherhood is not necessarily
embraced or respected in the market place. A single parent mother
discovers this when a sick child requires that she miss a day or two
of work. When she tries to find adequate child care, those
belonging to "the old school" admonish her with, "A mother's place
is in the home." Stay-at-home moms frequently feel awkward in
certain social settings when they are called upon to make an
accounting of themselves while being among female judges, physicians
and university faculty.
If love were made mandatory for all
human beings, we would create another form, something that religion
has been good at doing for thousands of years. Giving birth to the
new idea was easy for Jesus, but it was exceedingly challenging to
accomplish in the mind and hearts of others. It sounded good, but
not many people subscribed to this new commandment with much
commitment or enthusiasm.
In fact, Christianity on many
occasions has communicated just the opposite. Through the centuries
the Church has sent the message, "If you conform to these
requirements, Heaven will be your reward. If you believe this
creed, follow this plan of salvation or fashion your faith journey
according to our denominational beliefs and traditions, your life
will be pleasing to God." We have all heard these things but such
theology has created more miscommunication than it has in modeling
what loving behavior looks like. Theology like this has also made
our understanding of God's nature highly suspect.
The reason Jesus understood this
commandment as being new was because of how it was greeted by his
listeners. Many of his students may have found it difficult to
resonate with this "new" concept. If we are honest with ourselves,
a good number of us must stand with them. We have standards that
must be met and when they are violated, we want justice.
For example, there was something wrong with the parable of the Prodigal Son. How could a responsible father claim to love his son and yet allow him to walk away from his wonderful home setting, take his rightful inheritance and squander it on illusionary living? The parable did not send a message that Jesus' listeners were used to hearing.
Why would a faithful shepherd leave
the 99 faithful sheep in order to search for the one who was lost?
This did not sound right. Some Christian doctrines have
taught that "Divine Justice demands that people will have to live
with the consequences of their choices. They made their beds now
let them lie in them. Heaven is for those who have been faithful
and have followed the correct beliefs?" Jesus thought
There was the story of the laborers
who were hired at different times during the day. At sunset the
Lord of the estate paid them all the same wage. The laborers were
angered because of the obvious lack of justice in paying a person
who worked eight hours the same wage as a person who worked only
one. Jesus said, "This is the way God loves."
How do we love when there are so
many layers of our society that need justice, improvement, better
follow-through, increased attention, more people getting their
education and finding employment commensurate with their skills?
What are we to do? What we can do is let our little light shine,
as the delightful song with that title instructs. That is what
Jesus did as he hung on a cross. He continued to love those who put
A number of us have been long term
admirers of Bill Keane's Family Circus. Here is the scene
from one of his cartoons: A mother is driving home from the store
with four small children, the dog and numerous bags of groceries.
Her face remained composed as though abiding by the philosophy that
"this too shall pass."
In the bubbles above the heads of
the children were these words. "Mommy, tell Billy to stop looking
at me. Which bag has the lollipops? Janie just dropped the ketchup
bottle on top of the prune juice and the bag is leaking. It's cold
back here. Why do I have to sit on the frozen food? Jimmy's
opening the cookie bag." And finally the best one, "You don't smile
very much when you drive, do you Mommy?" Bill is a master at
capturing our common family experiences in cartoon form.
We were called upon by Jesus to
love without expectations. We, however, tend to look for results
from our loving, forgetting that God is deeply involved in
everyone's life whether they believe so or not. All people are
God's creations. We are all God's children and we should not
judge the parenting skills of God when others are not responding
according to our result-area or time table. Even when love does
not receive the response we seemingly require, love does not fail
the one radiating such energy. Jesus understood this truth in
his own experience.
He lost Judas. He listened to James
and John who wanted to call fire down on a town because they refused
to received Jesus. He knew that Peter would deny knowing him. The
disciples were often featured as being short-sighted, selfish,
complainers and competitive. Jesus simply loved them as they were,
just as Bill Keane's mother loved her children regardless of their
One of the lesser celebrated
qualities of love is that it is not motivated by the thought or need
to change people. Love as a one way street has no expectations,
yet it is the most powerful force in the universe for the ones who
have found this pearl of great price. This is a point of
misunderstanding for many Christians through the centuries.
Nothing is required from us before God loves us.
But clearly there is another
aspect to the dynamic of loving energy. What happens to people
who become exposed to such one-way love? Those who stand in its
presence become encouraged to change who they are. Think
of how many times, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do"
has inspired us. What seems to matter in an argument, no longer
does when love is present. Our insistence on being right is no
longer an absolute when love is present. "Our way or the highway"
melts into our acceptance of others when love is present.
The spirit behind his behavior is clearly why Jesus is referred to as "the light of the world." A light draws people no matter where they are in their darkness. What is sad is that Jesus commandment is still "new" to many of us. The good news is that we can change that by altering how we think and how we respond to others. Doing so also communicates our trust that God will do the rest.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal, faithful and every present God, we
confess that we know that our loving nature is often suspect. We want
to hold on while knowing we must let go. We want to give to others from
our storehouse of wisdom, while realizing they must cultivate their
own. We want to teach others how to escape the hurdles, tears and
failures of life, while neglecting to remember what such struggles
enabled us to become. Teach us, O God, how to trust you with the
destiny of our loved ones. May we find comfort in the truth that you
hold the eternal security of all of us. Inspire us to lead by example,
to teach by a consistency of spirit and to encourage others by accepting
them as they are. We pray these thoughts in the spirit of love. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Always loving and present God, this morning we
come with thanksgiving in our hearts for your giving us such deep, rich
and infinite spirits. You have given us the capacity to teach, to
nurture and to guide others in ways that enhance the quality of all our
lives. We thank you that within each of us is an incredible treasure
trove of talents and abilities that surface the moment we desire to use
This morning we also express our appreciation
for the woman who carried us within her body until we experienced life
in this world. Today we honor her as our society pauses to recognize
our collective gratitude for the songs she sang to us, for the nights
she stood vigil until our fever broke, for the wisdom she mirrored as
our values were being formed, for the tears she shed when we were
mistreated by other children and for the life time of happy memories she
gave us. We thank you for her.
During our moments together, help us reflect on the kind of love that does not count the cost, that does not think of itself as sacrificial and that does not look for reward. May our love grow because of our awareness that reflecting our energy in this way will encourage others in the art of living peacefully together. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .